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What It Takes to Write a Novel

by Sylvia Engdahl

This essay appeared (untitled) in On Writing III, published by the online magazine Critique. It was submitted by invitation in November, 2003.

Itís commonly believed that once a person has written a successful novel--or perhaps several novels--then he or she "is" a writer, in the same sense that someone who has passed the bar exam is a lawyer, and that failure to produce more books is a sign of something having gone wrong. The writing of fiction is not that kind of occupation. Producing a novel demands more than the ability to write well; more than the understanding of human nature needed to portray believable characters; more than the compelling desire to express a view of life through the experiences of those characters. It requires having a story to tell. Theme alone does not constitute story, or even the material from which to construct a story; and while construction techniques can be learned, no amount of learning, practice, or effort can lead to creation of a plot where no underlying story exists. The seminal idea of a story (though not, of course, the detail) comes unsummoned into an author's mind if it comes at all. Writing may be one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, as the saying goes--but that one percent is indispensable.

Most authors of fiction are natural storytellers. They have no occasion to consider this issue, since plenty of story material emerges into their minds and they have only to learn what to do with it. I was never so blessed. Itís not a matter of "writer's block"--writerís block is a situation in which someone who normally has ideas for stories is unable to think of a good one, or has trouble putting it into words. The creation of stories isn't normal for me; I didnít make up any as a child, and everyone who knew me was astonished when in my thirties, after years of working as a computer programmer, I began to write novels. The mystery is not why I haven't been able to do so lately, but why I was able to during the short period of time when the cores of those novels were conceived.

People often say--mostly in connection with Enchantress from the Stars--that I must be a very creative person. I'm not, really. Basically I'm an exceptionally analytical person, which is the opposite. Unlike most authors, I have few so-called "right brain" talents. Putting thoughts into words is a "left brain" activity, for which I have natural aptitude. So is determining the structure of a novel and planning the features of its setting. And the view of humankind's future that impels me to write comes not from any imaginative faculty, but from conviction and rational speculation. Thus it didn't require creativity for me to write, given story situations through which to transform my thoughts on issues into fiction. Issues aren't enough to make a novel; in a novel, something central has to happen. In one year, out of the blue so to speak, the inspirations for those key happenings came to me--I remember the actual days on which it occurred, long before the books were written--but the fact that I got several such ideas nearly fifty years ago does not magically endow me with the power to summon more.

To be sure, I'm restricted in the kinds of happenings I personally can make into stories. For instance, I cannot write action fiction--fights, battles, escapes, etc.--because I don't envision such action well enough to describe it. One can't put into words what isn't vividly real in one's mind. It might be thought that the adage "write about what you know" doesn't apply to authors of science fiction, but the essence of it holds true: a writer must "know" inwardly the details of what's going on, whether or not this knowledge is based on personal experience. I can write about characters' reactions to all sort of events, but there are inherent limits on the events in which I can give them active roles. Another adage for authors is that one must write the kinds of stories one enjoys reading, that to do otherwise is to ensure failure; and I've never been fond of action stories even in the SF and fantasy genres. Perhaps if I were able to write them, I wouldn't be dependent on inner flashes lighting the way toward drama of a less obvious kind--but then I might never have written the introspective novels that are my natural forte.

All this has been a roundabout approach to the question every writer hears, and most hate: "How do you get your ideas?" Some consider it a foolish question--everybody has ideas, they feel, and the only difference between a writer and other people is that the writer has a gift for expressing them and has mastered the craft of doing so in the form of fiction. This assumption merely avoids the question. Most people don't have ideas with potential to blossom into stories; that is why they ask. And the answer is that not only do I not know where I got mine, I suspect that no writer knows--except in the sense of awareness that they arise from the unconscious mind. For some, this is so frequent an occurrence that it's perceived to be an ordinary aspect of living and thinking. For others, like me, it is rare. And I don't think this is a failing on my part, any more than I consider it a failing for creatively-gifted authors to have less aptitude for computer work than I.

Nevertheless, it has been deeply frustrating to me, both because I hate disappointing readers who urge me to write more novels--and who, ironically, assume that I could do so if only I wanted to--and because I long to be writing. I am enlivened by the process of writing fiction; as with more prolific authors, it fulfills an inner need. When I do have a story to tell, I cannot pull myself away from it for even a few hours at a time. Moreover, I have many thoughts about the future I want desperately to express in story form. It's not lack of desire that has kept me from it, though I long ago learned that it's counterproductive to go on beating against my inborn barrier between the analytical and creative modes of thought.

Will I ever get another story idea? Quite possibly--since I donít know why it happened before, I still hope that it will someday happen again. I haven't "lost" any creativity; one can't lose what was never within one's power to call upon at will. If the essential spark of a story comes to me, a book will soon follow; the skills needed to develop and convey ideas, I still possess.

Unwelcome news though it may be to those who would like to write, but have not done so; who have studied techniques yet are searching in vain for the secret of how to come up with a novel, I must say: When you have a story to tell, you will know.


Several years after the online publication of this essay, it happened to me again, after I had given up all hope of ever getting another story idea. I was cleaning up my hard disk and came across a draft of the opening chapters of a novel I had tried to write many years before, but had abondoned because it had no story, no key events, and was not heading toward any sort of conclusion. I had several themes I wanted to deal with in fiction and had designed the dystopian society about which I wanted to write; I had even created the main characters. But no story, so after much struggle I had put it aside. Then, seeing the draft after passage of time, it suddenly struck me what would happen at the end, and what would be needed to lead up to that. After that I was able to write it quickly in just a few months of what time I could spare from paid work. It became my adult novel Stewards of the Flame, and the climactic event for the sequel Promise of the Flame came to me soon afterward.

Only a few years later, to my great surprise, it happened yet another time--I suddenly got the idea for the crucial events for a related novel, Defender of the Flame, and wrote it much more quickly than my others. I did not expect it to have a sequel; when it was published I considered it complete in itself and called the three books a trilogy. But again to my own astonishment, one night the culmination of the hero's life occurred to me, and I went on the write Herald of the Flame.

I don't know if another story will ever rise from my unconscious mind. I do know that I cannot force it, any more than I could force myself to come up with action for a novel during all the past years I tried. I can only be thankful that it did happen, unexpectedly, during several rare periods of my life.

Copyright 2003 by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
All rights reserved.

This essay is included in my book Reflections on the Future: Collected Essays.